(New York, NY - WNYC) Long distance buses have been crashing and killing passengers with an unwholesome regularity since the beginning of the year: 25 dead and many more injured in six major accidents. And now the U.S. Department of Transportation is showing signs of moving into active crackdown mode.
The news arrived over the weekend with U.S. DOT press releases announcing the immediate shutdown of two bus companies for safety violations. Combined with an identical action against another carrier a few days before, that made for a four-day score of Government Regulators 3, Rogue Operators 0.
Before then, it had been rare for the U.S. DOT to go beyond punishing individual drivers and impounding single buses to banishing an entire bus company from operation.
The Department has stepped up field inspections. During the first two weeks of May, its inspectors carried out 3,000 surprise safety checks that ended up taking 127 drivers and 315 buses off the road.
The department has also been arguing for greater powers, such as the ability to levy a $25,000 fine for a safety violation, up from $2,000, and to conduct inspections at rest stops, not just at the beginning or end of a route.
Anne Ferro, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which is part of U.S. DOT, made those very requests at a Congressional hearing on bus safety on Monday. The problem is most of Ferro's proposals require the passage of federal laws, a process that moves as swiftly as holiday traffic in Midtown Manhattan.
Ferro's agency has also just shown what could be done by aggressively enforcing existing rules.
In shutting down those three bus companies, FMCSA inspectors invoked their power to declare an operator an "imminent hazard," defined as a commercial carrier whose practices "substantially increase the likelihood of serious injury or death if not discontinued immediately." An example would be Haines Tours, the Michigan carrier that packed customers into cargo bins at the bottom of its buses.
Inspectors declared the company an imminent hazard and immediately pulled it off the road. The same fate befell United Tours of North Carolina for using unqualified drivers, as it did to CT Motor Coach, a previously suspended bus company that apparently "reincarnated" as JT’s Travel & Charter after being put out of service for repeated violations.
On May 31, the FMCSA was in the process of taking action against Sky Express when a bus in Virginia swerved and flipped, killing four passengers and injuring more than 50 others.
State police in Virginia believe the driver of the bus fell asleep at the wheel. According to FMCSA records, Sky Express scored in the bottom 15% nationally for "fatigued driving"--and was virtually worst for "driver fitness."
That dismal safety record, compiled over the previous two years, had caught the attention of the FMCSA. In April, inspectors showed up at the carrier's offices and conducted a thorough "safety compliance review."
Sky Express flunked it. Yet the company was permitted by law to take 45 days to appeal the finding, which it did. Then Sky Express asked for, and was granted, a ten-day extension to appeal. It was during that ten-day period that its bus crashed in Virginia.
The next day, Transportation Nation asked a U.S. DOT official, "Why wasn't the company put out of service before [the] crash?" The official replied in an email: "Currently FMCSA does not have the authority to shut down a carrier without an in-depth on-site investigation."
Eight days later, the agency found that authority and declared JCT Motor Coach an imminent hazard and immediately shut it down.